Before delving into the problems of the WCS 2013 structure and my analysis, I do want to take a brief moment to look at some of the positives that have come from this format.
In studio matches and regularly scheduled broadcasting
This is a great thing. I love that Blizzard is going the way of NASL/GSL in working to implement more of a daily broadcast into their official platform. It's a nice thing that their partner organizations - MLG, ESL, and GSL all have studios that can accommodate this type of system. The daily broadcast model really helps to build and create storylines and develop fan relationships with the players involved. It increases the relatability and drama that can come out of such a format.
Riot's LCS system does this very well, and I think that Blizzard's method will create a similar result with much less cost induced to them (I.E. they're not paying for housing and salaryAl of over a hundred gamers). As long as these shows are well produced and enough compelling content is created to augment the actual games, I think this will be fabulous.
I am a little sad to see NASL's lack of involvement however, as no other organization is better at creating content and has more experience running a daily broadcast, except maybe GSL. Neither MLG or ESL have really worked with such a model before, and their non-event production quality and content types have been vastly outshadowed by NASL.
1.6 Million in prizes, and lots of free flights/travel
This is great, obviously. They are pumping a lot of money into the competitive scene and the travel support will really help pro gamers (and teams) create a economical and healthy infrastructure. I think a $250,000 world finals prize is great, many millions of dollars is unnecessary in my opinion and there's probably a point of diminishing returns with increased prize pool. $250,000 seems like a good number.
Industry standardized formats and point structure
Another good move. Every major tournament should feel exactly the same. A standardized experience is paramount to building a brand, so this is a good move. I also like that a points system will be created which will also grant points to 'non official' events such as the Dreamhacks or NASL's, and possibly even smaller tournaments. While details have yet to be announced, this is a positive step that will encourage tournament organizers to work and plan together, as well as to create a truly hierarchical structure with a clear balance of power. Clarity and consistency in my opinion, are key to a successful scene or community.
This system may hurt game sales and does not promote the actual playing of the game
Much of 'the bad' has been expressed nicely in this blog. I want to touch on these points as well, but from a different angle. I argue that Blizzard, by ignoring a true Olympic style global event, will hurt overall game sales in the future. Unlike Riot, who generates profit via a micro-transaction system, Blizzard's primary avenue of revenue generation is through game sales. Whenever I think about this system, the first thing that comes to my mind is that this 2013 WCS system does not promote people playing the game. It promotes spectating. You don't need to buy StarCraft to watch it. I know there are many people on Teamliquid who don't own the game but simply enjoy watching it. By creating an official tournament structure that removes any possibility for 'average Joe gamer' to become a professional and play on a big stage, Blizzard is potentially losing people who would buy the game and play it in hopes to one day become a pro.
If you look at Riot's system, for example... they have a clearly outlined structure that rewards players for getting to Challenger tier on the ladder. While it is possible to level an account to Challenger without paying any money, most people will buy rune pages, skins, and other items in the shop in order to help their chances of advancing. Spectators are motivated to buy the champions played by their favorite players, and so on. Riot's LCS system, while incredibly costly in terms of the amount Riot has invested in funding pro teams, building studios, and its prize pool, is something that will directly lead to increased revenue. I have no idea if the increased sales of skins, champions, runes, etc is greater than the amount of money Riot is investing into its LCS, but at least there is a very clear motive there, in my opinion.
Blizzard's 2013 structure however, has no such thing. By removing the possibility for amateur players to break into the professional scene, the company is essentially saying that unless you are already a pro, or possibly Korean, there is no chance for you. Although it is technically possible, even current NA players for example, are losing interest in the game because of the difficulty of making it. If current top amateurs/semi-pro gamers can't find the motivation to play, why would a completely new user get involved in the game?
This system is bad for local scenes and communities
This is the point most touched on already - by creating a format which allows Koreans to play in any region, and summarily discontinuing tournament support in smaller markets, Blizzard is essentially creating a structure that can never build local heroes the way a truly global competition should. The Olympics is a great example. Angola may not get past the group stage in Olympic basketball, but every Angolese (is that the correct term?) who has access to a TV will likely be watching all their games. The team from Angola is the pride of their country, and the fact that they are given an opportunity to qualify for the Olympics means that for four years, basketball players in Angola are training and practicing in order to qualify for the next event.
As a mid-level American player, what hope is there to qualify in an American tournament filled with Koreans. If the rumblings are true, it won't just be B-level Koreans either, it will be several A and S class Koreans competing. While spectators love watching the highest level play, they also love relatable characters and interesting stories. Local heroes provides this, Korean players do not. Watching HuK and Scarlett duke it out on the main stage to see who will win Canada's pride is more compelling than watching Sting and YoDa fight on Canadian soil. In fact, look at WCS Europe, or WCS Canada last year as examples of why this matters. This is not to say that a WCS NA and WCS EU with 28 of the 32 participants being Korean won't generate great viewer numbers, of course they will.
The problem though, is that from a competitive standpoint, it decreases the chances a local player has of earning a living and being able to practice the necessary amount to even compete at that stage. This is fine if you are an MLG or GSL, a non-official tournament provider. Blizzard however, has a different motivation, a different obligation to its player base. Blizzard shouldn't be playing favorites, and this WCS 2013 structure is doing just that.
The real elephant in the room... Korea's influence over Blizzard
This entire structure, to me, reflects an undue influence on Blizzard by those in Korea. The entire WCS is being modeled after the Korean GSL format. The announcement was held in Korea, in a garish display that provided a lot of flash, and not enough substance. The format is also majorly beneficial to Korean players at the expense of local talent.
Koreans being freely allowed to play in WCS American and European events to me signifies that Korea basically influenced the decision making of Blizzard, or that Korean organizations have more of a say than does non Korean entities, or even Blizzard itself. Blizzard should be above these politics, and should be the ones dictating to tournament organizers what the format should be, how organizations are to cooperate, and how a global structure is to be built. It seems like what happened here is that Blizzard outsourced the solving of this problem to Korea, and Korean organizations created a structure that was highly beneficial to them.
Think about it: a Korean player may have to endure non-ideal playtimes and latency in online matches, and then will receive a free trip abroad to compete in the offline portion of the American or European WCS (if I understand correctly). This reduces the travel cost for Korean teams, who have notoriously struggled financially. This increases the likelihood of non top level Koreans being able to qualify for the world finals and win prize money. Except for a handful of 10-15 Koreans competing heavily in GSL's or last year's WCS, the only Koreans who earned money were the ones lucky enough to go overseas. Now a greater number of Korean gamers will be subsidized to go abroad and win money, and qualify for a much larger global event at the same time.
Furthermore, it is very likely that Korean players will be more favorably treated than non Korean players at these events. It has happened time and again, and will continue to happen. For example, in 2011 MLG events, Korean gamers were allowed into the playing area to practice a few hours before even top foreign players were. Online tournaments have given Korean gamers more flexibility with being late, rescheduling, or no-showing to games. This is not to say every online tournament has done this, just that it has been done for fear of angering Korean players or having Koreans withdraw participation [see NASL Season 2].
What does this mean, what are the implications
Conspiracy theory aside - and whether any of the above is true or not, and assuming it is, I don't think the structure was implicitly created with favoring Koreans in mind, but rather to allow the most-possible 'best' players the chance to advance to the global final.
However, I don't believe that this is the real goal or purpose of the World Championship Series. I view this event as the real Olympics of StarCraft 2. Even if you look at the NBA as an example: the Western conference for the entire 2000's was vastly superior to the Eastern conference. From 1998-1999, to 2008, only one Eastern conference team won. The Spurs decimated an 8-seed New York team, the Lakers eviscerated Philadelphia, Indiana, and New York, the Spurs won possibly the most lopsided Finals ever by dismantling Cleveland in 2007 - imbalances exist in the NBA. Imbalances exist globally; in the Olympics, the American basketball team will likely not lose for the next 20 years. It is not the Olympic committee's responsibility to create a structure in which only the best teams will win, otherwise Olympic basketball would turn into 4 American teams in the top 4. It is the job of the Olympic committee to ensure that all reaches of the globe can have a chance at qualifying, and to create a system in which each event is truly global in nature. I view Blizzard's role in StarCraft as that of the Olympic committee.
The implications are simple: 2013 will see a decline in the activity of the foreign scene, especially in North America. Luckily, there are way more European LAN events than American ones, so at least European gamers have much more opportunity to win money at tournaments that are not flooded with Koreans. In America though, there was just IPL, NASL, and MLG. There are the occasional LAN event (like GESL) but they happen once a year, at best, with prize pools that really aren't compelling enough to garner widespread attendance. Luckily, GESL was held a week after MLG so people just stayed locally for an extra week to attend it.
Blizzard is going to effectively kill off its most lucrative market. It may be that viewing and spectating numbers won't suffer, but you can bet that the number of people playing the game will decline in 2013.
A better structure is available
There are two considerations here, in my opinion. The 'pro league' model, and the 'olympic model. By pro league think American professional sports, like the NBA.
Riot is clearly following the pro league model. Riot is the governing body, it runs the entire structure, funds the ecosystem, makes the rules, administrates, and handles every aspect of competition. Riot standardizes everything. This is similar to how the NBA operates. It is 'the' premiere basketball league in the world. The best players in the world play in the NBA, even though there are other leagues in the United States and globally - everyone knows that the best players play in the NBA. The best league players play in LCS. There are other tournaments that teams compete in, but if you're not in the LCS, you aren't top tier.
The olympic model however, offers a more hands-off approach, and I believe this is right up Blizzard's alley [disclaimer: I may not understand the olympic model exactly, if this isn't how it works, then I'm just calling it the olympic model anyways], and is pretty much what the 2012 WCS was anyways (why did they move away from this again?). Blizzard will work with partners (as the Olympics works with people like FIBA(?)) to host qualifiers and create a system in which they're qualifying regional players based on a system that is already in place. Blizzard is just acting as the godly body without directly being involved in the process the way Riot is involved in its LCS.
Each tournament then can retain its own branding and identity, as long as enough basic rules of equality of competition and equal opportunity are maintained. Blizzard reaps all of the benefit, and incurs even less cost as well. Further, it allows itself to crown a real global champion while providing something for everyone.
As a side note: there is a 3rd approach that Valve is doing with Dota 2. They simply invite teams to The International, based on following tournament results throughout the year. This is even more hands off, because they aren't even running qualification, but making a slightly more subjective assessment of the space and inviting based on that.
Overall, I am disappointed by the direction Blizzard has taken in 2013. To me it seems poorly thought out and too Korean-centric. I think HOTS has moved in a significantly better direction than WoL and am excited about the game and its possibilities. I am excited that Blizzard has expanded its esports department and is investing more heavily into it. I think though that this format needs to be entirely re-thought. Unfortunately due to the size of Blizzard and the scope of this format, a change in 2013 is unlikely, and we will have to suffer through a very silly and one dimensional year in esports.
My only hope is that the damage done in 2013 can be reversed if a better structure is adopted in 2014, or Blizzard simply continues the global 2012 WCS format, OR copies the Riot / Valve formats, which are both superior to what Blizzard is doing in my opinion.
I do have faith in Blizzard though, long term I feel like they've always delivered the best, so I hope next year will be better!